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June 29, 2003 

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Waiting for autonomy of radio and television

Burhanuddin Ahmed and Sadrul Hasan Mazumder

In any democracy access to media is one of the key measures of power and equality. Media can shape power and participation in society in negative ways, by obscuring the motives and interests behind political decisions, or in positive ways, by promoting the involvement of people in those decisions. In this respect the media and governance equation becomes important.
In a democratic society, therefore, the role of the media assumes seminal importance. Democracy implies participatory governance, and it is the media that informs people about various problems of society, which makes those wielding power on their behalf answerable to them. The actions of the government and the state, and the efforts of competing parties and interests to exercise political power should be underpinned and legitimized by critical scrutiny and informed debate facilitated by the institutions of the media is a normative assumption uniting the political spectrum.

Politics of autonomy
The government exerts a great deal of control over public broadcasters, using them as a mouthpiece for government rather than as an independent source of information for the public. It is only when the independence of public broadcasters is guaranteed - in law and in practice -that they can truly operate for the public interest, providing high quality information from a variety of sources to the public. But the ill fate of the people of our country is that the last two democratic governments of Bangladesh attempted to devise mechanism to retain control over the electronic media directly or indirectly. During the autocratic rule, the electronic media was branded as a media devoted for the sole cause of the autocrat and their close associates. Until 1991 the issue of 'autonomy of radio-TV' did not come to the forefront of the societal discourse.
Granting autonomy to Betar and BTV was one of the main demands in the joint declaration of the three alliances announced after the fall of Ershad. After the first ever democratic election and with the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1991, the issue of 'public broadcasting autonomy' gained momentum. But we have noticed with frustration that the BNP government did not uphold its commitment to grant autonomy to electronic media during its tenure (1991-1996). However the BNP government did form a commission to assess the matter, the recommendations of which were never published.
The Awami League government constituted a 16-member 'Commission for Framing Rules and Regulations for the Autonomy of Bangladesh Television (Radio-TV Autonomy Commission)' in September 1996, coming back to power after long two decades

The report at a glance
The recommendations of the Commission included formation of a National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) completely independent of the Government, accountable only to a Parliamentary Committee on Information. The NBC would administer both Bangladesh Betar and Bangladesh Television including approval of the budgets for both Bangladesh Betar and Bangladesh Television, which would function and operate from their own income. A Code of Conduct would be signed between NBC and the private operators. A Standard Committee would be formed by NBC to monitor Satellite and terrestrial programs, and take action against violation of the guidelines. In the area of news coverage, protocol value would replace news value. The commission suggested that the President will appoint one chairman and six members of the National Broadcasting Commission.

Implementation status of the act
Instead of formation of a National Broadcasting Commission as recommended by the commission, the Awami League government formed two separate authorities. Each authority would have a chairman with some members to assist in running the affairs of the two public broadcasting agencies. Under the two draft laws approved by the cabinet - Bangladesh Betar Authority Act, 2001 and Bangladesh Television Authority Act, 2001, the government can sack the chairman of both the authorities without giving any reason.

The key points of the draft law are:
-Separate authority for Radio and Bangladesh Television
-A committee of the five members would be selected by the government with a Chairman as its head
-Telecast of news and programmes in accordance with the National Broadcasting policy
-The Government has the power to dissolve the authority
The provision of empowering the government to appoint Chairmen and members for the two authorities, one for Radio and the other for Bangladesh Television were being criticised in the political arena as a departure from the Autonomy Commission's recommendation that President of the country would be the appointing authority.

Initiative of the present government
The very interesting part is that the present government has already celebrated its first year of regime but has not yet taken any initiative on the issue of autonomy of Radio and Bangladesh Television. It has been observed that the present government of the 4-party alliances has already changed and in some cases cancelled various decisions and policies of the previous Awami League government on important national and local issues but has remained silence on this issue. The former Information Minister Barrister Nazmul Huda in a reply to a question why the BNP government took no steps in this regard said that they intended to give autonomy to the state run Radio and Bangladesh Television but time had run out before they could complete the process.

Concluding remarks
There is a prevailing believe that just enacting law will not help these media to enjoy actual autonomy. There are many who argue that media is an elitist bourgeois construct, reflecting essentially bourgeois interests and values and conditions of existence, and can thus never serve the genuine interests of the common people. Despite its democratic faç
ade, it is said that the media remains exclusive, and people as a whole do not have alternatives but radio or television for their necessary information.

Burhanuddin Ahmed is Director and Sadrul Hasan Mazumder is programme officer, LSSP of Manabik Shahajya Sangstha (MSS).


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